I wrote this article after working with the NYC Civic Engagement Commission (CEC) to design and implement the first city-wide deliberative participatory budgeting process. The Borough assemblies took place from January - February 2023. You can read it on the CEC's Medium page.
“I have never seen government act like this.” — Richa, Brooklyn Borough Assembly Committee Member
When reading this quote, what ideas come to mind? Given the polarizing political climate and constant legislative gridlock, one might expect the worst. Trust in government is at an all-time low. ‘Democracy is in crisis’ is a popular headline as political pessimism, or worse, nihilism deepens.
Yet, the quote provides a pleasant surprise. Richa was serving as a member of the Brooklyn Borough Assembly Committee, a part of New York City’s first-ever city-wide participatory budgeting process, The People’s Money 2022–2023. In designing the process, The Civic Engagement Commission (CEC) integrated principles from deliberative democracy, a field that is deepening everyday people’s decision-making power around the world.
In all five of the boroughs — Queens, the Bronx, Manhattan, Staten Island, and Brooklyn, 20 residents were selected to form a demographically representative committee of their borough. Inspired by the increasingly popular use of civic lotteries, the CEC and the Sortition Foundation randomly selected committee members who had completed an expression of interest to ensure diversity within the assemblies. A stipend was provided in recognition of the time commitment and to make it easier for members to stay involved.
Over the course of two months, the committees learned about the issues in their communities, discussed and further developed community-submitted ideas, and decided which ones would be placed on a ballot for a borough-wide vote. The committees influenced millions of dollars of New York City’s budget. Pre and post-surveys of committee members revealed the following shifts:
Belief that the CEC is “very trustworthy” increased by 25%, with total trust in the CEC totaling 80%
Motivation to be “highly” or “often” engaged in government decisions that affect their lives increased by 46%, totaling 86%
Is democracy in crisis, or just our practice of it? New York is one of the most diverse cities in the world, yet our ideas and systems of democracy are hyper-focused on the recognizable area of electoral politics. Combining participatory budgeting and deliberative democracy was an effort to pluralize and expand how we practice democracy as a city. In doing so, we are leveraging the power of our diversity to mobilize and expand residents’ democratic power beyond elections.
An Overview: Participatory Budgeting and Deliberative Democracy
Participatory budgeting is a democratic process in which community members decide how to spend part of a public budget. Participatory budgeting started in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989 as an anti-poverty measure. The process has been implemented over 11,600 times in states, cities, counties, schools, and other institutions across the world!
NYC City Council members introduced participatory budgeting back in 2011. While many City Council members currently participate with their own discretionary capital funding, The People’s Money is the first citywide process utilizing Mayoral expense funding. Expense funding can be used for projects and services, and the citywide process allows all New Yorkers to participate, regardless of the council district they live in.
Incorporating practices of deliberative democracy within the participatory budgeting process was inspired after taking a workshop at the Hannah Arendt Center’s Democracy Innovation Hub. Drawing on Athenian and indigenous models of social governance, deliberative democratic processes (also known as citizens’ or civic assemblies) create randomly selected, but demographically representative, samples of a population that learn together about pressing issues, engage in deep deliberation, and develop informed policy solutions.
OECD Citizens’ Assembly Model
Governments around the world, Belgium, France, and Brazil to name a few, have used this process to address issues such as affordable housing, health care, equity in education, and climate change. In the US, Stanford’s Deliberative Democracy Lab has run national-scale processes, while Michigan and Petaluma have convened assemblies at state and city levels. Municipalities in Paris, Brussels, East Belgium, Lisbon, and Milan have established permanent assembly models, with Paris providing its citizens with agenda-setting powers. There are nearly 600 examples of deliberative processes worldwide.
Combining Participatory and Deliberative Processes
The three primary differences between participatory and deliberative processes are 1) the number of participants, 2) how participants are selected, and 3) the type of participation. 
Participatory processes strive for breadth — engaging high numbers of the population by opening up participation to everyone and encouraging people to voice their opinions and ideas on a particular matter. Examples include referendums, public opinion polls, needs assessments, and idea generation sessions.
Deliberative processes strive for depth — engaging smaller, but representative groups of the population. They provide more time and information so groups can become well-informed, consider varying perspectives, and make a collective decision. Deliberative processes have been conducted in producing a city’s 10-year financial plan , or constitutional reform on marriage equality.
Combining these two modes of engagement within The Peoples’ Money process took advantage of their inherent strengths while mitigating their weaknesses. Conducting an Idea Generation phase enabled the CEC to identify the breadth of community concerns and their innovative solutions. The Borough Assembly Committees provided the time and learning environment for representative bodies to deeply learn about the issues and make an informed decision on the final projects for the ballot.
The People’s Money 2022–2023 Participatory Budgeting process was broken up into four phases.
In Phase One, idea generation, virtual and in-person workshops were hosted for residents to learn about the city budget cycle, identify community needs, and brainstorm and submit ideas for expense projects. The CEC and 82 partner organizations facilitated 528 workshops across the city which engaged 12,344 New Yorkers. A total of 2,023 ideas were submitted for the boroughs and 2,116 ideas for equity neighborhoods.
In Phase Two, project vetting and development, is where the borough assembly committees took place. Residents interested in serving on the committees could submit an interest form either at the idea generation sessions or on the CEC’s website. From the pool of interested residents, the Sortition Foundation helped to randomly select a demographically stratified sample of 20 residents to broadly represent each borough. Census data for age, racial and ethnic identity, education attainment, and household income were used for the selection.
Over the course of two months, committees in each borough attended between 14 and 16 hours of meetings (committee schedules were determined by the members) to review the top community-submitted ideas. The assembly members were split into subcommittees, focusing on areas such as health and wellbeing, workers’ rights, senior services, and education, among others. Together, the assembly members learned from each other’s lived experiences and subject matter information to not only narrow down ideas, but to further develop and cross-pollinate them with the various subcommittees. This enabled the committee to collectively select the top projects that would best serve their respective boroughs.
The third phase returned to all the residents of the borough to vote on the selected projects. From May 10th through June 25th, 2023, all New Yorkers, ages 11 or up, regardless of immigration status, could vote online or in person to fund projects in their borough and/or neighborhood.
In phase four, implementing organizations will work closely with the CEC over the course of the year to ensure they are supported, projects are effectively monitored and completed successfully. All projects must be completed by June 2024. The CEC will report back the results of the projects upon completion, including metrics such as the number of residents served, outcomes, highlights, successes, and challenges.
Reflections of the Borough Assembly Committees
Integrating deliberative processes afforded many beneficial outcomes within The People’s Money process. The challenge with bringing together such a diverse group is the plurality of perspectives they bring on the issues in their communities. However, by creating a safe learning environment for the committee members, this diversity became the committee’s inherent strength, a collective wisdom that has been proven to better solve complex problems than homogenous groups of experts. With the aid of small group facilitators and subject matter information, the deliberations helped residents find common ground, generate innovative solutions, and make tough trade-offs on complex and contentious issues.
Although participatory processes are open to all, ability to engage is not guaranteed. People who are financially stable, have more free time, are able-bodied, are good public speakers, are already highly civically active, and/or benefit from racial and other social privileges are more prone to participate. However, by randomly selecting residents and paying them for their time, the process reaches new potentially less engaged residents and provides financial compensation to support their engagement.
Prior to the assemblies, 60% of one committee responded as “rarely” or “not involved” in government decisions that affected their lives, after the assembly process, 90% said they will be “highly” or “often” involved, an increase of fifty percentage points. Across all boroughs, 86% said they will be “highly” or “often” involved, an increase of forty-six percentage points. In a follow-up survey, ninety percent of all committee members said they would serve on a borough assembly committee again. And 87% said the process expanded their awareness of important local issues.
There are, of course, lessons to be learned after every process, and there were several in this case. One surprising one was that people wanted more time. It takes a while to understand the issues people face across a borough and there are a lot of questions to be answered, so our participants told us that in the next process, we should give the committees more hours to learn the issues and deliberate. So in Cycle 2 we will be giving everyone 16 hours over six meetings to understand the variety and complexity of the ideas and possible solutions. And we will connect them with more resources and knowledgeable stakeholders to broaden the base of information they can draw on.
Scheduling and consistent attendance were also problem areas. Getting 20 people with jobs and life commitments to attend four to six sessions over 6 weeks is difficult. For Cycle 2 we have laid out a schedule further in advance so that when people are selected they know exactly what they are committing to and when. In addition, recruiting more than 20 people would give us a larger and more representative group but for logistical and budgetary reasons that is a goal we will have to leave for future cycles.
Lastly, we learned that it’s important to further support the public at large when developing ideas that feed into the assemblies. The over 4000 ideas submitted came with varying levels of detail, which left committee members wanting to have more foundational information on some of the projects. This year we have developed the idea generation phase to have the participants work more closely together to develop more concrete and complete ideas. This not only improves their experience but gives the assembly members more information to advance even better projects.
Revitalizing Trust in Government
National polls show trust in the government sitting at an all-time low of 20%. In comparison, a pre & post-survey revealed that assembly members’ belief that the CEC is “very trustworthy” increased by 25%, with total trust for the CEC totaling 80%. This rise in trust is common for deliberative processes. For example, in Argentina participants’ distrust in government decreased by 40% after an assembly on transit and traffic issues.
Transferring this trust to the larger public can be done through a transparent process. If the public can see assembly members who reflect the diversity of their communities as they deliberate on complex issues, they are more likely to trust the decisions that were made. Additional strategies like having assembly members host public consultations between assemblies with their communities, streaming deliberations online, and conducting press conferences to announce the final projects, reporting to the public on the progress and results of implementation or policy solutions can establish legitimacy and public confidence in the process.
Let’s return to the opening quote, “I have never seen the government act like this”. What if that experience with government wasn’t the exception, but rather the norm? Participatory budgeting has spread around the world in just three decades, putting municipal budgets in the hands of everyday people. Now, civic assemblies are ushering in a new paradigm of democracy, continuing to expand civic engagement beyond electoral politics.
Deepening our practice of democracy will, of course, take time and practice. Building the institutional infrastructure and capacities is necessary for fair and effective civic deliberation. But governments around the world are utilizing and institutionalizing deliberative processes to consistently make informed and inclusive budgetary, policy, and urban planning decisions with their constituents. And combining deliberations with collaborative tools like Polis and preferendums can widen how the public engages with assemblies.
We are at a pivotal moment. Climate change and artificial intelligence alone will reshape and potentially widen the social inequities and divisions within society. The answer to complex challenges should not be technocratic, but rather more deeply democratic. Scaling our collaborative process can help with collective sense-making, discerning challenging trade-offs, and building alignment on the structural changes necessary to address the challenges of the 21st- century.
The fusion of participatory and deliberative democracy within The People’s Money process created more inclusive spaces for NYC residents to directly develop community-driven solutions. The CEC has launched the second cycle of The People’s Money with Idea Sessions being held from October 10 to November 19, 2023. Having learned much from the first cycle and incorporating those lessons we will be continuing the practice of the Borough Assemblies to give a voice to New Yorkers from all walks of life. Growing participatory budgeting and deliberative democracy will increase the role of all New Yorkers in the decisions that affect their everyday lives resulting in a better city for everyone.
2023 Queens Borough Assembly Committee
This piece was written by Forrest Sparks, a consultant of the Civic Engagement Commission. Special thanks to The Sortition Foundation, Healthy Democracy, Shared Future CIC, Particitiz, and The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities for supporting the development of The People’s Money process.
 The follow-up survey was an email survey where 40% of the assembly members responded. Other statistics mentioned about the assembly in the article were from a pre and post-survey where 95% of assembly members responded.